Senate committee looks at U.S. cold snap and electricity

Fuel diversity, or, as some prefer, fuel security, occupied the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this morning, with all witnesses professing fealty to having a diverse electric generating system in the U.S., but without full agreement on how to do that, or even how to define it.

There was one element of complete agreement. The two wholesale markets most involved in this winter’s prolonged cold snap – not as cold as the 2014 “polar vortex” but lasting longer – performed well. Both the PJM Interconnection and ISO-New England were able to meet their loads without disruption.

The most interesting element of the hearing was the voice that was seldom heard: the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which has a central role in the reliability of the grid. Charles Berardesco, the interim NERC president, was mostly ignored during the hearing on how the electric system performed during the coal wave. But NERC will have a major role in any analysis of diversity and security in the months and years ahead.

Questions flowed in copious amounts to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Kevin McIntyre, Bruce Walker head of the DOE “Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability,” Allison Clements of Goodgrid LLC, Andrew Ott, head of PJM, and Gordon van Welie, CEO of ISO-NE.

McIntyre noted that the December-January coal spell saw “no significant customer outages.” He added that wholesale electric prices were high, but that situation can be “beneficial” by sending the correct market signals to consumers.

Walker, in the aftermath of the failed DOE proposal to reward coal and nuclear plants with cost-based rates in wholesale markets, said he is proposing a project to come up with a detailed “unified” model of the U.S. electric system to provide an “in-depth understanding of resilience,” including local and regional issues. He added that DOE does not have funds appropriated for this task.

At the end of the hearing, Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked FERC’s McIntyre his “personal” opinion of the threats of retirements of coal and nuclear plants to the grid, on a 1-10 scale. He diplomatically answered that his opinion is “clearly a five.” He said his personal opinion will be must better informed when he hears from the RTOs and ISOs charged in FERC’s recent order with providing information on generating diversity.

–Kennedy Maize